The German government is coming under mounting attack from business groups angry at its refusal to ease the country’s coronavirus restrictions, as pressure grows for an exit strategy out of one of Europe’s longest shutdowns.
“Businesses are growing increasingly desperate, and angry,” said Guido Zöllick, head of DEHOGA, the German association of hotels and restaurants. “More and more fear for their existence.”
He was speaking after a crisis meeting with German economy minister Peter Altmaier where 40 groups representing the hospitality industry, tourism, retail trade and other sectors lambasted the government’s pandemic policies.
Their anger was focused on a critical meeting last week between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 regions. Reflecting concern over the spread of new, aggressive strains of coronavirus, the leaders decided to extend the shutdown until March 7 — a move welcomed by virologists but greeted with dismay by the business community.
The leaders also decided that from that date, non-essential shops will only be allowed to resume operations if the local seven-day incidence rate does not exceed 35 for at least three consecutive days. The previous target had been higher, at 50 infections per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, no plan was put forward for reopening restaurants, hotels and leisure facilities.
The decisions mean that Germany now has a far harsher lockdown than most of its neighbours. In Italy, France and Austria non-essential shops have reopened, and in cities such as Madrid, restaurants and cafés are also functioning. Meanwhile, Poland has allowed hotels, theatres and cinemas to reopen their doors, though only with reduced capacity.
A survey by EuroCommerce found that in 19 of 31 European countries, all shops are now open — even in places with much higher infection rates and numbers of deaths from Covid-19 than Germany. The country recorded 3,856 coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours, and a seven-day incidence rate of 58.7 per 100,000 people.
Businesses are also angry about significant delays in the distribution of aid payments. Many are still waiting for compensation for November, the first month of the renewed shutdown.
With only seven months to go before Germans elect a new parliament, the extension of the lockdown could become a political problem for Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union. They have both enjoyed soaring approval ratings throughout the pandemic, but voters are showing signs of impatience with the current restrictions, as well as the slow start of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
The business summit Altmaier hosted on Tuesday was a chance for senior figures in the worst affected sectors to air their grievances over the lockdown extension. Josef Sanktjohanser, head of the HDE, the leading retail trade association, said it had left his members “deeply disappointed”.
Sanktjohanser described the current restrictions as “indiscriminate” and “excessive”. “There’s no appropriate reason to stop retail outlets reopening above an incidence rate of 35,” he said, adding that 65 per cent of shops in German city centres expected to file for insolvency this year unless they received more state aid.
The business groups also expressed frustration at the government’s slowness in handing out emergency aid. Michael Frenzel, head of the German tourism industry association BTW, said a quarter of aid payments for November and 75 per cent of allocations for December were yet to be distributed.
Altmaier did announce some concessions to business leaders. Acknowledging the “uncertainty” facing many companies, he promised to work with them on a “reopening strategy” in time for Merkel’s next scheduled meeting with the regional governors on March 3. He also said the government had decided to lift a cap excluding companies with annual sales of more than €750m from applying for emergency aid.
But he also warned that in considering when to announce a further relaxation of the shutdown, the safety of the population was the most important consideration. “The economy can’t flourish if we get a third wave of infections,” he told ARD television ahead of the meeting.